Major Lester C. O’Neal, MD, Regimental Surgeon
Author: John Vick
Major Lester CV. O'Neal, MD, Regimental Surgeon, WW II, KIA Italy.
[Photo: Mrs. Tillie O'Neal Hamiter]
Memorial Day is a day in which we honor those who gave their lives in the service of their country. Most of us have known some of the veterans of WWII, the group celebrated by Tom Brokaw as The Greatest Generation. The fallen from WW II are honored at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Among those fallen heroes is Major Lester C. O’Neal, MD, Regimental Surgeon from Andalusia, Alabama.
Lester C O’Neal was born in Andalusia, Alabama, Nov 28, 1906 to Clanton S O’Neal and Ida R O’Neal. He had 8 brothers and 1 sister. After graduating from Andalusia High School in 1925, he attended the University of Florida from 1925-6 before transferring to the University of Alabama. He graduated from Alabama in 1929 and entered Medical School at LSU – New Orleans. He received his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1933 and interned at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. O’Neal had married Louise Pelham of Andalusia in 1929, who accompanied him during Medical School and his internship. Upon completing his medical and surgical internship, Dr. and Mrs. O’Neal moved to Andalusia where he opened his medical practice in 1934. That same year, a daughter, Louise “Tillie” O’Neal was born.
Dr. O’Neal had a successful medical and surgical practice from 1934 until Nov. 26, 1940, when he volunteered to be mobilized for active military service with the 117th Field Artillery Battalion, the Andalusia National Guard Unit which was part of the 31st [Dixie} Division. Dr. O’Neal had joined the reserve unit in 1934. As Regimental Surgeon for the 117th, Dr. O’Neal was given the rank of Major and traveled to Camp Blanding, Florida with the 117th for training. In Feb. 1942. Major O’Neal was sent to Camp Bowie, Texas and assigned to the 27th Construction Battalion as Battalion Surgeon. After maneuvers in Louisiana, he was reassigned to the 39th Combat Engineer Regiment.
The Regiment traveled overseas to Oran, Algeria in January 1943 . In letters sent home to his mother, Maj. O’Neal, talked about his travels with the 39th. They included traveling to St. Cloud to build a prisoner of war enclosure, going to Pereguay to build a railroad and a supply dump, going to Anne Frantessa to construct a school, and to Mostageum to guard the port and docks. Maj. O’Neal said, “It was my duty to see that all these troops were looked after medically, so I traveled the routes with all units.”
In May 1943, the 39th along with Maj. O’Neal, left Oran and moved 100 miles south to the Atlas Mountains, near Magenta for intense training in preparation for the invasion of Sicily. By June, they had moved to Arzew at the 5th Army Invasion Training Center. There, the 39th, along with Maj. O’Neal, was attached to the 1st and 4th Ranger Battalions, under the command of Col. William O. Darby. These units under Col. Darby were known as Darby’s Rangers. There was a movie about them produced in 1958, called “Darby’s Rangers.” After training as a part of Darby’s force, the Engineers along with the Rangers, traveled to Algiers where they were embarked aboard ships for the invasion of Sicily. They were the first troops to land in Sicily on July 9, 1943. As part of the invasion force that landed at Gela in Sicily, Darby’s troops became a part of General Terry Allen’s 1st Infantry Division which was part of General George Patton’s 7th Army. After the landings at Gela, there was fierce fighting with many casualties. Maj. O’Neal wrote in his letters home, “I am doing well and have had no battle wounds. Speaking of wounds, I want to tell you how these men react to their injuries. It is almost unbelievable. I can see these men get hurt and never does one complain. I saw where one man cut another man’s arm off when a big tank turned over on him and caught him under the track. At once, the tank began to burn and when the man could not be gotten out. The other man cut the arm down to the bone and then shot the bones in two. Both men had to be hospitalized. The next day, when I saw the man in the hospital who had lost an arm, he was helping nurses carry out buckets of used bandages.”
O’Neal talked about reading about the exploits of the Rangers in the papers and said “We were attached to the Rangers. We did a swell job and did not have a single man killed.” After capturing several key towns, the Rangers were relegated to guarding the flanks of the army as it advanced to Palermo. The Sicilian campaign ended in Aug 1943 when Messina was reached and the Axis forces left for Italy. Maj. O’Neal and the Rangers then took part in the invasion of Salerno with Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army.
The invasion of Italy began with Operation Avalanche, the codename for the Allied landings near the port of Salerno, began on Sep 9, 1943. Major O’Neal’s unit, the 39th Engineer Combat Regiment, landed at Paestum [the main landing area for the invasion] some six days later. As the fighting proceeded inland, the 39th was tasked with repairing and clearing highways, erecting bridges over canals and streams and constructing bypasses where needed. The invading allies were nearly forced back into the sea by the Germans before the 39th Combat Engineer Regiment landed. Gen. Mark Clark received the Distinguished Service Cross [the second highest award for valor in combat] for his leadership in defending the counterattack and securing the landings. The 5th Army, under Gen. Clark, captured Naples on Oct 1. From there, they, including the 39th proceeded north to the Volturno River,where the Germans had set up their defensive lines. Maj. O’Neal’s group, the 39th Combat Engineers, constructed a ferry across the Volturno and began winterization of the 8th Evacuation Hospital, nearby on Oct 15. Maj. O’Neal worked between the 8th Evacuation Hospital and the newly formed 38th Evacuation Hospital located north of Naples near Riardo.
Last known picture of Maj. O’Neal and others from the 39th Combat Engineers taken in Sicily on Aug 20, 1943. Maj. O”Neal is 3rd from the upper right [holding a cup]. Commanding Officer, Col. Tom Green is seated and the 39th Executive Officer, Maj. Bob Blasen, is to Maj. O’Neal’s right.[Photo: Mrs. Tillie O'Neal Hamiter]
On Nov 7, Maj. O’Neal was traveling near Riardo in a command car with three other officers when they were attacked by a group of German fighter planes. Maj. O’Neal was the only casualty. He died instantly when a 20mm shell penetrated his helmet. He was buried that same day in a temporary cemetery near Marzanello Nuova.
The 39th Combat Engineers continued the march north with the Allied Armies fighting to secure Italy from the Germans.
On Nov 21, some two weeks after Maj. O’Neal’s death, his family was notified by Western Union. Miss Cicily Raley, a family friend, was the Western Union operator and she personally carried the telegram to the family. After the notification, the family held a memorial service at the First Methodist Church of Andalusia, on Dec 1, 1943.
Almost five years later, on Aug 19, 1948, the family was notified by Western Union that Major O’Neal’s remains were being shipped to the U.S .and that the family would be notified three days prior to further shipment to Andalusia. A short time later, the remains arrived, escorted by an Army officer of equal rank. Mrs. O’Neal and the family met the train at the L & N depot on South Cotton Street upon arrival. Foreman Funeral Home received the remains. Not long after that, burial took place at Magnolia Cemetery with full military honors.